A turning passion: Woodturning group seeks to teach, share knowledge

Posted: Friday, May 27, 2011

Paul Johnson stood in front of a misshapen wooden amalgamation.

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Photo By Brian Smith
Photo By Brian Smith
Soldotna resident Paul Johnson, 42, puts the finishing touches on a demonstration project at the Kenai Peninsula Woodturners Chapter's May meeting. Johnson, who has been working on a lathe for 16 years, said woodturning can be a great hobby and encouraged those who are interested to attend one of the groups meetings.

The pieces of wood -- each section a different color and soaked heavy with glue -- were lifeless. But, not for long.

The Soldotna resident reached down and brought the wood to life with the flip of a switch. Watching the wooden cylinder spin in front of him, he trained his gaze and tools toward the object.

About 10 residents watched him work, shaping and molding the wood's curves into the form of a bottle. Sanded smooth and unhinged from the lathe it was previously married to, Johnson brought life to an otherwise useless collection of fine woods.

"I've done this long enough now to where I've envisioned it before I have even put it on the lathe in the first place and so then it is just more of a free flowing line," Johnson said. "Concentration is more than anything to make sure your tool doesn't hang up or gouge."

Johnson, a 42-year-old vocational education teacher at Nikiski Middle-High School, swiped the shavings and saw dust away and showed his creation to the audience -- the Kenai Peninsula Woodturners Chapter.

"I wanted to create something that you could actually use," Johnson said to the group demonstrating he had glued the wood to surround a glass wine bottle, then shaped it on the lathe.

Johnson's presentation was part of the usual activities of the woodturner's chapter -- a group started in January.

President Al Janonis said he wanted to organize to the group to "get the ideas flowing" and to get "the people who have experience in touch with the people who don't have experience to bring everybody's level of craftsmanship up."

Through its first five meetings, the club has had up to 20 participants, Janonis said.

Woodturning -- which refers to the process of shaping round wooden objects on a lathe -- is as creative as it is technical, Janonis said.

"The creative juices get going pretty good because you can make something with your hands in the matter of an hour or a couple of hours and have a real nice looking piece," he said.

Johnson agreed. He learned the skill from his father-in-law before he passed away. In woodturning, he found freedom from the square world he had known as a union carpenter and vocational education teacher in Barrow.

"It was just the freedom of being able to do any shape you wanted to because every one was a unique, one-of-a-kind artwork rather than cookie cutter construction," he said.

The group, he said, serves to be a springboard and learning center for those seeking artistic refuge on the lathe.

"Anytime you get a bunch of guys together they all have a bunch of ideas and you learn a new trick and you get to show off something you did and see what they did," he said.

But there is also a more practical application to the hobby, Johnson said.

"It can be a hobby if you allow it to stop there, but look around your own house and how many things are round?" he said. "That was turned on some kind of machine."

Nikiski resident Elizabeth Daniels stood out among those in attendance at the chapter's most recent meeting. She was the only woman in the audience, but had a good reason to show up -- she got a lathe as a birthday present from her husband in July.

"I really hadn't gotten the opportunity to do much with it except gather materials to try to develop some kind of a woodworking company," she said.

She said she is looking to learn the trade as more than just a hobby, but rather a turn in her career.

"It is like a foundation to build on in the future and for a woodworking industry here for my son and myself," she said. "We're from the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee and there are a lot of wood workers in my family and we just have a knack for working with our hands.

"I enjoy the smell of fresh cut wood."

Armed with her video camera, Daniels taped the woodturning demonstrations that day to contribute in part to an instructional library the group is compiling.

"I kind of felt out of place at first because I didn't know anything about it," she said "The second meeting I just went to everybody was very friendly, very open to helping people, I got my tools sharpened and I learned about different things."

Johnson said the goal of the group is to teach, share and raise awareness about his and many others' passion for woodturning to anyone -- even mothers with no experience like Daniels.

"It is just that offering of ideas, that mixing pot of information and everyone takes something away from it that they didn't have when they got here," he said.

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.

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